Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano

In Search of the Spitting Crater
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We continue our trek through the rain forest and come to a second-growth hillside that was once cattle-grazing pastures but is now being slowly reclaimed by the jungle. We don't see any of the impressively tall Ceiba trees that dominate the uncut inner jungle at lower elevations in Costa Rica. But it is obvious that the long growing seasons, abundant rainfall, and warm climate of Central America are providing conditions that are fostering nature's rapid reclamation of the rain forest from the rancher's hands. Palm, ficus, rosewood, chicle, and balsa trees have already appeared.

The magenta jacaranda, the ochre-colored poro tree, and the almost blinding yellow corteza amarillo tree are restaking their claim to the land. Understory plants — bright red heliconias — members of the banana family, begonias, purple orchids, thick carpets of morning glory, huge bromeliads, and the ubiquitous ferns are everywhere. Too early for the howler monkeys and three-toed sloths to move back in, but we see plenty of toucans, aricari (a smaller but just as colorful version of the toucan), and orapendula birds with their daffodil-colored tails, and electric-blue morpho butterflies flitting in the leafy canopy. Long lines of marching leaf-cutter ants go busily about their business, carrying small bits of vegetation across the jungle floor to their nests.

In Pursuit of Volcanic Innards

But our goal evades us. We still haven't caught sight of the volcano's active crater. And if the low cloud cover stays, we will never see the peak of Arenal, its cone spewing rocks and lava. So we continue upward, hoping that we'll get a break. We leave the second-growth area and hike through a zone of thicker rain forest. The canopy here completely hides the sky. So now we are even more skittish. At least before we were comfortable with the pretense that we could see a hurtling rock and scramble out of the way. Since we can't see through the jungle canopy some 80 feet overhead to watch for flaming meteors (not that it would do much good anyway; we'd probably stand awestruck while a boulder flattened us), every rumble from above results in involuntary flinches from us.

About 2,200 feet up the mountain's steep lower slope, we break out of the thick rain forest into an open area on the western slope. This face of Arenal has been scoured clean of all vegetation by the heat of the volcano's core and the rocks flying out of the volcano's innards. The climbing is tough here, the slopes a combination of loose gray ash, small porous lava rocks, and irregular football-size boulders. There is little soil to hold this aggregate together and we find our footing precarious and dicey. Our hiking becomes an ordeal of sliding and stumbling. The contrast between the open slope and the rain forest is dramatic. From the deep green rain forest vegetation with its colorful splashes of red and yellow and blue birds, butterflies, and flowers we have emerged into a dull monochromatic world of ash and smoke. Everything is gray; the ash-laden slope, the dreary gunmetal volcanic rocks, and the dull sky overhead.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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